On their latest, the Holy Gasp makes a theatrically heavy album that explores grief in all its colours.
In recent years, summer has come to me wrapped up in a calloused package of grief. Whether caused by literal death or the struggle to contend with the longer daylight hours, the year’s halfway mark is a strange time. When I first encountered the newest release from the Holy Gasp, I had already begun to drape myself in sadness, prepping for the usual summer plateau. However, the grief-filled album unexpectedly did more than ease my restlessness; it ironically sparked new life.
Released April 7th on Roar Records, …And the Lord Hath Taken Away is the third full-length studio created by Toronto-based lyricist Benjamin Hackman, co-composed by Benjamin and Anthony William Wallace and conducted by Maestro Robert W. Stevenson. The album conceptually finds itself built upon the story of Job, a man whose life unravels theological questions (and answers) on human suffering and death.
Job himself takes the forefront of the record. The 1883 French painting depicted as the cover art shows Job with forlorn eyes turned heavenward, rags torn, downcast in ashes—and yet the characters of the record do more than mourn. Hackman’s reworking of the story dances with the weight of grief, bearing witness to our universal struggle in a somewhat satirical way.
With a runtime of 65 minutes, it’s almost as if this album allows grief to bear witness to those mourning. The Holy Gasp presents a larger-than-life body of work by employing a robust 45-musician orchestra and incorporating diverse musical genres such as jazz, folk, rock, gospel, country, classical, and musical theatre.
After a five-year gap following the release of The Love Songs of Oedipus Rex, it’s a wonder to see Hackman’s poetic brilliance take the stage once more. He does not hide behind the grandiosity of death, absurdity, or God. Tracks such as “Archie & the Gang in: The Day of Atonement” are proof of his ability to bridge the gap between craving to release pain while remaining steadfast in a comedic posture that resonated with his own experiences. Over the years between the Oedipus release, and the current album, Hackman experienced many deaths of loved ones. Considering this perspective, …And the Lord Hath Taken Away is a philosophical statement and a pained reality for Hackman.
“הבל הבלים” (“Haval Havalim,” based on Ecclesiastes 1:2) sees Hackman wrestle with the futility of life. The line “To each worm God gives a man” shares a similar flow as Hamlet’s monologue on our destiny to be eaten by worms. In a literal sense, the word “hevel” means “vapour” or “mist”—a twofold significance of the essence of our existence. Each breath underlines life’s faithfulness to death. To me, this points to the foundation of the band name, the Holy Gasp, itself. Maybe life is not a full breath but a gasp or spark before flickering out.
These questions are likewise accentuated on the track “Devil Oh Devil,” where Hackman tells the tale of a young woman who joins hands with the Devil in matrimony to escape the strife of life (this magnificent track was also brought to life through the stunning animation of Alla Kinda). Rather than remain centred on natural paths toward death, Hackman takes the time to include the battle that many face with malevolent devils, be it depression or self-loathing.
Further than music, The Holy Gasp has worked to create a physical manifestation of this space returning for a new season of Meaningful Encounters at Cafe Pamenar in Toronto. Attendance comes with an entry fee of $10 (or more) or the option of “experiential forms of payment,” such as participating in a brief, public show-and-tell session where you can share an artifact that holds personal meaning. These sessions, happening on alternate Thursdays from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM, are just one facet of how The Holy Gasp never ceases to push listeners to intentionally interact with life. …And the Lord Hath Taken Away is more than a study on loss. The album explores grief in all its colours, allowing listeners to actively play with thought-provoking questions while giving space to its gravity.